The Crank Family Robinson

Arthur Robinson is one of those classic American loons — someone with enough real knowledge to be dangerous, who then fritters away his expertise in grandiose plans that somehow never quite pan out, like his plan to build a universal medical diagnosis machine.

Here at what Robinson calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the family has been assembling an archive of human urine. Eventually they hope to gather 50,000 samples, drawn from 5,000 volunteers across a five-year span. The pee is kept in cryogenic vials and stored in dozens of military-grade, minus-80 freezers on the property. Robinson and his kids have already started placing tiny urine samples, each not much bigger than a raindrop, into the family spectrometer, so they can record its chemical fingerprint — the set of peaks and valleys corresponding to its thousands of component parts. Once their catalog of prints has gotten big enough, they’ll start sifting through for hidden patterns in the data, anything that might provide a hint about our health. According to Robinson, these records could contain the telltale marks of, say, early-stage breast cancer or an approaching heart attack, or they might allow him to track the effects of treating those conditions in real time. Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus [their personal hulking spectrometer] — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.

That’s bad science. Collecting vast amounts of noisy data with no specific hypothesis and then sifting through it looking for patterns is a recipe for apophenia. Another sign that this is a waste of time is that he’s been puttering away at his urine project for over 40 years, with no results. The breakthrough is always one step ahead of him.

I shouldn’t say no results — he has accomplished something. By following the PR moves of his mentor, Linus Pauling, while also preachifying radical Libertarian nonsense about climate change, he has cultivated a little cloud of exceedingly rich conservatives who throw lots of money at him in hopes of wish fulfillment. The Heartland Institute, that hive of lies and corruption, loves him, and filthy rich hedge fund managers (it’s always hedge fund managers — that occupation seems to breed foulness and evil) have been promoting him in the halls of power.

One could view his setup with idle curiosity: the science maverick on his ranch, with a seven-figure budget for his indie urinalysis. But the movement in which Robinson belongs (as a member, if not a shepherd) has nudged a few steps closer, in recent months, to the center of our national politics. Alternative theories of climate change — that is to say, those at odds with mainstream science — are now ascendant at the highest level of government, along with deep suspicion of environmental regulations. And other alt-science points of view — on vaccination, nuclear power, intelligent design — have been showing signs of purchase in the Trump administration. Even Robinson himself may soon be making tracks for Pennsylvania Avenue. Chief among his financial backers are the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon. In March, reports emerged that Rebekah Mercer had made the case for Robinson to be the nation’s new national science adviser. “It would be an honor to do it,” he told me.

He’s probably best known to conservatives for his petition to deny climate change and reject the Kyoto protocols, which got 31,000 signatures, mostly from people totally unqualified to assess the evidence. I guess that was another of his successes, since the US failed to ratify it.

“I think [the petition] was tremendously important,” another signer, the Princeton physicist and noted climate-change contrarian William Happer, told me recently. “It showed there are lots of highly credentialed scientists who really know a lot about the details of the science and don’t agree with the alarmists.” (In the past few months, Happer, like Robinson, has been short-listed for the job of science adviser to President Trump.)

(The article is from 2017. Neither got the job. Happer did bag the job of director of the National Security Council office for emerging technologies, which is a bogus appointment. Trump has appointed a weatherman, Kelvin Droegemeier as his science advisor, who has turned out to be a weasely coward.)

He has also garnered conservative approval for his stance on nuclear power. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that — I’m not dead set against nuclear power, but I have reservations. Robinson, though, goes a bit further. He thinks nuclear radiation is beneficial, so we ought to be getting zapped more.

If we could use it to enhance our own drinking water here in Oregon, where background radiation is low, it would hormetically enhance our resistance to degenerative diseases. Alas, this would be against the law.


He also thinks we could dispose of nuclear waste by incorporating it into building materials for homes, so we could all bathe in its sweet glow all the time. He’s an anti-vaxxer who thinks AIDS was simply a physiological reaction to gayness.

And this is what the wealthy Trumpkins think is a fabulous scientist.


  1. Artor says

    Robinson is a buffoon. Every election, he spends a shit-ton of money in an attempt to take our Congressman Peter DeFazio’s seat, and loses badly. I smile when I see his campaign signs, because it means right-wing nutjobs are pouring their money down a rathole that will get them nothing. DeFazio has been an excellent rep for decades, and there’s no chance that Robinson will ever unseat him.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon.

    Robert and Rebekah M also truly ♥ the Federalist Society, membership in which is now mandatory for all Trump™ judicial nominees.

  3. citizenjoe says

    Art Robinson has announced that he is going to run against Peter DeFazio In. My guess is, that a more – nearly responsible Republican will run against him, but that Mercer money will overwhelm anyone else in the primary. I am not nearly as sanguine as Artor, above, about Peter DeFazio’s chances, because a lot of my neighbors are RWNJs. Thank FSM for Lane County.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Kelvin Droegemeier may be be a weasely coward but a quick look his wiki suggest he may some some relevant qualifications.

    Happer has nothing relevant and Robinson is out-and-out crazy .

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Like when MRI was first introduced, the “full body scan” was the miracle diagnosis for all the ills that might trouble one.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    the urinalysis data reminds me a little (very little) of Johh Snow (not the GOT guy) correlating cholera in London to water supplier as a way to squash the “miasma” theory of disease. He kept publishing correlation with minor complaints from the miasmatists.
    — this from the audio book Death Map about the cholera outbreak in London

    It leads me to think it possible that looking at the urine data around disease occurrences could provide some short term warnings of future. IFF every time one contracted a diarrhea, their urine showed an increase in chemical Q the day before AND at no other time did Q vary, then seeing Q increase could predict diarrhea will occur tomorrow. Similar to blood test looking for urea in the blood, predicting an outbreak of gout soon.
    I see how it looks like I’m justifying them, I’m simply showing how easy it is for imitation to go very wrong.
    thank you letting me ramble

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I meant @12: his publications would receive minor complaints, they weren’t published WITH his papers

  8. nomdeplume says

    Once uppn a time great scientists were recognised as such, and loons were treated with contempt. Nowadays the reverse.

  9. raven says

    Art Robinson reminds me of someone recently in the news.
    I’m sure most of you know who I mean.

    Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Indicted on Fraud Charges – The …
    Jun 15, 2018 – Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos, the lab testing company that promised to revolutionize health care, and its former …

    The parallels are obvious.
    A magic diagnostic machine that requires small amounts of a bodily fluid.
    One that is always being worked on but never seems to get finished.

    The world is full of crackpots and cranks.
    They always need a little more time and money.
    And they always will.

  10. raven says

    Peter DeFazio is a great guy who has been reelected since about forever, 1987.
    He is also 71.
    No one lives forever.

    Art Robinson is 77.
    He has run against Peter De Fazio 5 times and lost 5 times.
    He is probably going to run against him soon, again.
    The good news is…no one lives forever.

  11. kaleberg says

    He sounds like an asshole, but stamp collecting has its place. Darwin, for example, set off for the Galapagos with no specific hypothesis on a mission in support of the European colonial empire. I doubt Robinson will find anything useful, but it’s not impossible. Still, I can imagine future scientists referring reverently to the foresight that built the Robinson Urine Archive, a priceless scientific resource. Only the more interested will learn that it was originally assembled by a complete jackass who didn’t have a clue.

  12. says

    Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus [their personal hulking spectrometer] — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.

    Once the details have been worked out? Unless you already know what you’re looking for, sorting through the noise to find an actual signal is going to be murder. It’ll be a minefield of false positives.

    It’s a good thing this guy is probably a crank, or it would be a sad waste of human effort.

  13. cartomancer says

    The medical school of Salerno was teaching that it was vanity to assume that all maladies could be diagnosed from uroscopy literally a thousand years ago. Giles of Corbeil’s de urinis warns specifically against this presumption – as he puts it, the doctor must see everything that is in the urine, but not see everything in the urine. Though if you didn’t have a sample to hand then you needn’t worry – William of England’s de urina non visa would tell you what it should look like using cutting-edge 1220s astrological calculations.

    This Robinson guy is just taking the piss by now.

  14. says

    “[T]hese follies are within you, and shine through you like the water in an urinal, that not an eye that sees you but is a physician to comment on your malady.” —Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

  15. unclefrogy says

    sounds to me that it could work if he had complete records all time stamped of all the subjects who supplied the samples their complete history along with close in depth monitoring of their health would be required including diet otherwise how the hell is anything useful going to emerge
    I thought all the real wacky cranks like that lived out in the south west deserts and ran spas
    live and learn
    uncle frogy

  16. chrislawson says


    This isn’t stamp collecting. It’s scrounging through the shredder bin hoping that some fragments of paper correlate with the remains of stamped envelopes, with the long-term goal of selling the method to real stamp collectors.

    In principle there’s nothing wrong with doing this kind of data crunch provided the researchers understand it as a hypothesis-generating exercise, not a hypothesis-testing one. But Robinson already has a hypothesis: that he will find markers that he can monetise. There is no reason to think this will work out for him, especially as it is based on the fallacy that every disease will produce molecular markers that will be excreted in urine. It’s not even new — we already use urine testing to identify numerous conditions, such as Bence-Jones proteins for mulitple myeloma. The Robinsons just think that crunching millions of associations will reveal something useful that everybody else has missed by more systematic research.

    It’s similar to the Theranos scam in some ways, although at least it has a small chance of finding some useful spectroscopic markers…and the Robinsons haven’t fraudulently claimed success. Theranos was peddling a biomedical fantasy and lied to its investors and put real patients’ health at risk by performing inappropriate tests.

  17. KG says

    I guess you could say he’s been pissing away his time. – Larry@11

    I’d say he’s just been taking the piss. But is that a purely British idiom?

  18. citizenjoe says

    I know, I know; and I’m heartened by that history, and the knowledge that Lane County can save us. But my county consistently votes 60/40 for Robinson (there were significant undervotes by Rs last couple of times–so that’s nice). And I remember a recent case of an utterly incompetent nut job supported by the Mercers, and widely dismissed by most of us.
    I’m a catastrophist. So I’ll work to defeat this guy again.

  19. zetopan says

    Calling Robinson a crank is a vast understatement. He is against public education and all for home schooling for which he sells kits, by the way. All of his children have been home schooled to prevent any contamination with reality. He has claimed that no child should be exposed to a science book written after 1910. He has also been in the business of selling religious music on CDs and is a religious fanatic, wanting the US to be a “Christian Nation”. His “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine” list 8 faculty members, two of which died well over a decade ago, and 2 are his sons. There are no classrooms or students at his “school”. He is basically seeking the fountain of youth; a way to completely halt aging. Of course he will nonetheless die in his fantasy pursuit. He has also been on AM talk radio along with the usual wing nuts. You will also find Reich Wing web sites that are praising him, for among other absurdities, fighting against “Lysenkoism” that is rampant within the real scientific community. He is anti gun control, anti AGW, anti government funding of science, and basically anti-rationality and is now the head of the Oregon Republican party. If it weren’t for the Mercer funding he would be an essentially unknown who rubbed shoulders with well known scientists in pretty much the same way as Stephen Gould’s last student (who remains a committed creationist).
    Wingnut press: